x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

With expanding waistlines, Brazilians are upsizing their itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis

A growing number of bikini manufacturers have woken up to Brazil's thickening waistline and are reaching out to the expanding ranks of women with new plus-size lines.

RIO DE JANEIRO // Tall and tan and young and ... chunky?

The Girl From Ipanema has put on a few pounds, and for many sunbathers on Brazil's beaches the country's iconic itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini just doesn't suffice anymore.

A growing number of bikini manufacturers have woken up to Brazil's thickening waistline and are reaching out to the expanding ranks of women with new plus-size lines.

That's nothing short of a revolution in this most body-conscious of nations, where overweight ladies long had little choice but to hit the beach in ensembles of oversized T-shirts and biker shorts.

"It used to be bikinis were only in tiny sizes that only skinny girls could fit into. But not everyone is built like a model," said Elisangela Inez Soares as she sunbathed on Copacabana beach, her oiled-up curves wrapped in a black size 12 bikini.

"Finally, it seems like people are beginning to realise that we're not all Gisele," said the 38-year-old mother of four, referring to willowy Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Clothing designer Clarice Rebelatto said her own swimwear-hunting travails prompted her to found Lehona, an exclusively plus-size beachwear line.

"Honestly, the problem went way beyond just bikinis. In Brazil, it used to be that if you were even a little chunky, finding any kind of clothes in the right size was a real problem," said Rebelatto, herself a size 10. "And I thought, 'I'm actually not even that big compared to a lot of women out there, so if I have problems, what are they doing?"'

Since its launch in 2010, the line has become a hit.

In brash leopard spots and flower prints not meant for wallflowers, the label's 14 bikini styles are not what you would normally associate with plus-size swimsuits. The necklines plunge dramatically. Straps are mere strings. And while the bottoms provide too much coverage to qualify for the famed "fio dental" or "dental floss" category of Brazilian string bikinis, they're significantly more audacious than the standard US cut.

"We're working from the principle that bigger women are just like everyone else: They don't want to look like old ladies, wearing these very modest, very covering swimsuits in just black," said Luiz Rebelatto, Clarice's son and director of Lehona.

Lehona is currently sold exclusively at big and tall speciality stores throughout Brazil. Its bikinis retail for about US$75 (Dh275)- a relatively high price-point here, but Mr Rebelatto said sales have grown at a galloping pace, though he did not provide any figures.

It's the same story at Acqua Rosa, a conventional swimwear label that added a plus-size line in 2008. Now, plus-size purchases account for more than 70 per cent of the brand's total sales, said director Joao Macedo.

It makes sense.

For centuries, large swathes of Brazil were beset by malnutrition, and in 1970, nearly 10 per cent of the population in the country's poor, rural north-east region was considered underweight, according to Brazil's national statistics institute.

But the phenomenal economic boom that has lifted tens of millions out of poverty over the past decade has also changed the nation's once-svelte physique: A 2010 study by the statistics institute showed that 48 per cent of adult women and 50 per cent of men are now overweight. In 1985 those figures were 29 per cent for women and 18 per cent for men.

Still, there's been no rash of plus-size male swimwear lines, as men here wear Speedo-style suits that don't impinge on big guts.

Analysts attribute Brazil's rapidly widening girth to changes in nutrition, with potato chips, processed meats and sugary soft drinks replacing staples like rice, beans and vegetables.

And while the country's elite are widely known to be fitness freaks - and also among the world's top consumers of cosmetic surgery - those recently lifted out of poverty and manual labour are becoming increasingly sedentary. A 2008 study showed that barely 10 per cent of Brazilian teenagers and adults exercise regularly.